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Review: I Am Alive
by Peter Kratz

Originally announced four years ago, right the way back in 2008, I Am Alive has had a rough time in development.

It looked like vapourware until it was recently re-announced as an XBLA/PSN release. Whilst the final product isn't everything it could have been, it still provides a fresh, compelling experience. One year after a disaster referred to only as 'the event', our protagonist Adam returns to his ruined hometown of Haventon, searching for his wife and daughter, who were never evacuated. He carries a bit of food and water, a climbing harness and one unloaded pistol. Though his character isn't given much of a chance to develop, it is refreshing to have a hero whose goal is to simply survive and find his family, not kill all the bad guys.

Of course, the plot demands that you still kill bad guys. Whilst many survivors will leave you alone, providing you do the same, others are looking for trouble and will threaten you or even attack on site. The game takes a very different approach to most when it comes to combat; you can only take a little punishment, and you need to rely on your wits. If you lure one thug in close, you can quickly slit his throat with a machete and take aim at his cohorts with a pistol. Enemies can be intimidated by your pistol even if it's unloaded, so long as they're not aware that it won't fire, but very few will flat out surrender until you've kiled all of their cohorts.

Thing is, there are only so many ways to finish off intimidated opponents, and so little time. You usually kick them into a pit or a fire, the latter of which is unintentionally hilarious, since they make no attempt to get back up. By the time you can make the "feeling lucky, punk?" speech, most enemies will catch on and start fighting again. The only way to fight back when out of ammo is to perform a lengthy struggle kill that leaves you vulnerable to attacks from other enemies, usually for long enough to give ample opportunity to kill you. The result is that you have to give up on rescuing a survivor, due to a lack of ammunition and no evident way to survive an encounter. It may sound compelling, but trial-and-error doesn't really work in a game based on realistic survival.

It isn't that combat is bad; for the most part, it's quite the opposite. Outwitting opponents is satisfying, and the game is just forgiving enough on normal difficulty, but often your options for how to deal with some encounters are a little too limited. The combat eventually picks up when you find a bow and arrows, which add significant depth; the arrows can be re-used, provided you can reach them, but ammo is incredibly sparse. It would also have been nice to see more stealth involved, as it only comes in to play for a handful of areas, and Adam can't even be bothered to crouch behind something.

Navigating I Am Alive's concrete jungle isn't easy, but provides many standout gameplay moments.

Platforming in the game fares just about as well. Adam is no Cole McGrath or Ezio Auditore; he usually moves slowly and tires out from climbing after several seconds. To recover stamina, you need to either quickly find solid ground to stand on, or use an item such as water or food - don't ask how he eats instantly whilst hanging from a ledge. Tire out too much and his maximum stamina will begin to decrease until you find something more filling to eat. Once the maximum drops to zero, it's game over. Climbing works decently, even though a little sticky, and the more intense sections can keep you on the edge of your seat, with one stand-out area where you scale a building sideways. However, it uses the Enslaved style of platforming, where the character only jumps when the game knows he can reach something. It can still be engaging, and the survival aspects may have called for it, but it just isn't as fun as 'free' platforming.

As for the game's story, it's simplistic, but well-paced and keeps the audience invested for the most part. The bleak atmosphere is what will really grip players; there's no way to undo the damage or save the world, and Adam has no intention to do so. Everyone is struggling just to survive, bad guys included. You may actually feel sorry for some of the thugs you have to put down, mostly because of their slow, agonising death animations. I'd actually argue that I Am Alive makes a better horror experience than most actual horror games recently, with its focus on a struggle for survival; a thick, hopeless atmosphere and its ventures into some dark themes in the second half. Often, you'll be forced to abandon people in need due to your own limited supplies, and bringing out the darker side of humanity is what good horror should be about. I'm aware I criticised that aspect earlier, but there is a difference between a poorly-planned encounter which you're forced to grind and a person begging for medicine which you simply don't have.

Whilst the game's overall length is decent for a download-only title - clocking in around 4-6 hours, depending on how much you explore - its story comes to a screeching halt when it feels like it should just be getting started. What ultimately happens is implied, but it will most likely leave players feeling cheated out of a good story; it's like if Lord of the Rings gave up at the end of the second movie, and simply cut to the Ring falling into Mt Doom with no other closure.

I Am Alive delves into dark territory, especially during the second half.

The game mostly looks and sounds alright considering its $15 price tag, even with its mostly grey-on-grey colour palette. It all lends to a strong atmosphere, and is accompanied by an appropriate soundtrack and better-than-passable voicework, but there are a few instances where obvious budget cuts affect the game and destroy immersion.

I realise I've said much more bad about I Am Alive than I have good. Yet, though it's hard to pin down, there is something truly engaging about it. Technically, the game fails in a number of areas, but most of what makes the game unique is intact, and that makes a compelling enough reason to play through some of its frustrations. The atmosphere is rich, the combat is like nothing seen before, and while none of its gameplay elements are perfect, they do come together into a worthwhile package. Just don't expect to be blown away by any one aspect of it. Check out the demo, and if the core concepts strike your fancy, you shouldn't regret buying the full thing.

7/10 [?]

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- Peter Kratz

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